Interview with Jesse Durovey

Jesse Durovey, co-winner of the riverSedge 2016 Prose Prize for his essay “Afghan Ghosts,” answered some questions for us about his process, future writing plans, and how he heard about riverSedge.
  • Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and some of the experiences that have helped to shape you into the writer you are today.

I spent most of my so-called formative years in western Montana, but my family also moved a lot while I was young. All of the moving caused many of my friendships and early hobbies to be short-lived. As a response, I found great comfort in reading, and I loved my local libraries. I read anything I could get my hands on—Stephen King, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Louis L’Amour, L’Engle, and heaps of Greek mythology. As I grew older, I also turned to Hemingway, Heller, Asimov, Heinlein, and Philip K. Dick. I spent a lot of time on my own in the mountains, so I learned to live in my own head and listen to that inner voice we all have within us.

Being such a daydreamer didn’t make me the best student, though, which often earned the ire of my father, who was something of a scholar. He was also a bit of a memoirist and a poet, and he would make my brother and me write literature essays for him during our summer vacations. He had high expectations for my writing, and it is his influence which instilled confidence and skill within me from an early age. Still, my dad and I had a tumultuous relationship in many ways—we probably didn’t get along until I was in my early twenties, sometime after he was diagnosed with colon cancer. By that time, I’d dropped out of college—a small university in Indiana where I was desperately lost—so I decided to join the Army. I had always thought I might serve at some point in my life, and I think that there was definitely an unconscious desire to gain my father’s approval within that gesture. I suppose that’s why I chose Military Intelligence, which is the same job my father had when he served in Vietnam.

I loved my time in the Army. I traveled all over—not just in the States, but to Germany, Qatar, and Australia. I made life-long friends, and I learned a lot about myself. I also deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. My deployment was about as safe as it possibly could be, but it still had a tremendous effect on me. I saw the impact of the war on the soldiers around me, on the interpreters I worked with, and on the Afghans I saw on a daily basis. These are the stories I want to write about.

  • How or where did you hear about riverSedge? What did you find interesting about our journal and what compelled you to send your work our way?

I was in a creative writing class at St. Mary’s University which was taught by Professor Diane Bertrand-Gonzales, and she brought in a flyer promoting the 2016 riverSedge prose and poetry contest. At the time, I hadn’t submitted any of my work; in fact, I was petrified by the idea of strangers reading and judging my writing outside of class. She left me with the flyer and some encouragement that I should consider sending a few things into the contest. I checked out the website and bought a copy of the 2015 issue, which I loved. I thought there were so many amazing stories that, to be honest, it may have made me even more intimidated. Still, I loved the layout and the art, and I thought that riverSedge would be a great place to send “Afghan Ghosts,” especially because it’s such a personal story in so many ways. I was completely blown away when I received notice from riverSedge that my story was the co-winner for 2016. I’m truly honored to share the prize with Thomas Ray Garcia; his story “Seventh Man” is fantastic. I could not have foreseen this outcome, but I’m truly grateful to riverSedge for this opportunity, and to all my friends and family for their never-ending support and encouragement.

  • As you can tell, we love backstories, so we just gotta ask: What’s your writing process like overall, and what inspired you to compose your winning essay piece?

Right now, being a full-time graduate student with a job and a family, the first part of my writing process is just finding the time to write as consistently as I possibly can. Oftentimes, I try to begin my stories by grounding them in some interesting anecdote or a funny situation, and I’m a big fan of free-writing on paper when I get stuck. St. Mary’s has such wonderful and supportive faculty, and Dr. Ito Romo and Professor Bertrand have been great mentors in my maturation as a writer. Of course, reading is still one of my greatest joys and greatly influences my writing journey. While I read a wide selection of genres, I do give a lot of focus to the greats of military fiction—Tim O’Brien, Phil Klay, David Abrams, Kevin Powers, and Matt Gallagher, to name just a few. I also can’t ignore the positive influence coffee has played in my growth as a writer.

The inspiration for “Afghan Ghosts” stems from my 2008 deployment to Afghanistan. I’d known for years that my father was sick, but it wasn’t until I took some leave just prior to deploying that I realized how badly he was doing—how far and fast he’d spiraled downward since my last visit home. I could have opted to stay home and not go on my deployment, but it didn’t feel like the honorable thing to do, and my dad pushed me to go. Not long after arriving in Afghanistan, I witnessed what’s called a Final Roll Call, a ceremony to memorialize fallen troops. This ceremony was to honor the memory of a young specialist killed during a firefight with insurgent forces, and the whole thing was so poignant that it’s stuck with me ever since. I think it was the same day or maybe the next that I received the Red Cross message telling me that my father was in at-home hospice care and wouldn’t live much longer. I felt caught in a trance; even the memory is surreal, and the hurried trip home to try to say my last goodbyes to him—goodbyes which he did not live to hear because he died when I was laid-over in Qatar—is another story in itself.

What I really wanted to do with “Afghan Ghosts,” besides providing a little catharsis for myself, was to share that the worries and troubles of real life don’t end simply because a soldier is deployed. The specialist died in a hail of gunfire and his wife and kids will have to carry on without him. Each soldier present at that formation lost a brother, while my own father’s organs failed him—and this is just one small story among myriads. There are thousands of stories to be told, not just of the dangers of war, but how the distance and the alienation tears at the bonds of families. I think it’s really important, also, to acknowledge how much upheaval and turmoil Afghan and Iraqi civilians have faced in the midst of these wars.

  • Finally, Jesse, what are you working on now? What other exciting projects will you be working on in the future?

My first priority is improving my skill and acumen as a writer. I’m still very new to the entire process, so I still have so much to learn. I’ve had a great network of support in that regard, which makes me very fortunate. I can’t imagine where I’d be without all the support and advice I’ve received from the entire St. Mary’s English Department. I’m especially grateful to Dr. Romo and Professor Bertrand for all of their support and expertise.

I also recently returned from the New York State Summer Writers Institute, where I had an amazing experience and learned so much about the craft. Adam Braver and Cristina Garcia were my instructors for the two weeks that I was there, and they were both extremely wise, kind, and supportive. I took along a longer story which I’ve been struggling with, and I got some great advice on which direction to take it from my instructors and peers. The story is about two friends caught up in the war in Afghanistan, and I really try to show some of the irony and humor of a soldier’s life. The story also deals with some difficult themes, such as anger, xenophobia, and death. I’m focusing on getting this story finished, and I’m also working on another piece—which should be ready soon—about the difficulty of returning home after war. Of course, speculative fiction is my other passion, and I’ve got a couple stories on the back burner while I focus on surviving this semester.

JESSE DUROVEY is a veteran of the U.S. Army and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in English Literature from St. Mary’s University. In 2008, he deployed to Afghanistan as a Signals Intelligence Analyst. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Pecan Grove Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and One Hundred Voices. He lives in San Antonio, Texas with his wife and two children.


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